Criminal Sentencing and Civil Consent Judgments: Part 1

by | Dec 22, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, New Jersey

On November 16, 2017, a three-judge appellate panel decided the case of State v. Masce. The principal issue was whether the Gloucester County trial court properly rejected the State’s request at sentencing to enter a civil consent judgment against the defendant in favor of the victims. In relevant part, the Court held:

Our review of the plain language of the comprehensive laws regarding restitution to crime victims leads us to conclude that criminal courts are proscribed from entering civil consent judgments when sentencing a defendant ordered to make restitution. If all sentences must be imposed in accordance with the Code, and the Code makes no provision for a court to enter a civil consent judgment, the entry of such a judgment would contravene the parameters of the authority conferred on sentencing courts by the Legislature. Although resorting to legislative intent is unnecessary when the statutes’ plain language is unambiguous, we elect to undertake a thorough review.

Most of the statutes we analyzed were enacted by the Legislature in 1991, in a comprehensive effort to make crime victims whole after suffering a loss at the hands of a criminal defendant. The Assembly Judiciary, Law and Public Safety Committee recognized that the 1991 bill “amends various sections of law concerning victims of crime,” including “N.J.S.A. 2C:12 concerning the general purposes of the criminal code sentencing provisions to include the purpose to promote restitution to victims.” The Sponsor Statement and the Assembly Appropriations Committee Statement both provide the aim of the bill is to “require courts to order defendants to compensate their victims to the fullest extent possible” given their ability to pay.

The Appropriations Committee noted that the legislation provides several measures to improve the State’s ability to collect moneys owed by convicted persons: a court granting probation or imposing a suspended sentence must require, as a condition of the probation or suspended sentence, that the defendant make complete payment of restitution and assessments for victims and witnesses; the probationary term of any person who fails to meet these obligations must be extended; the Department of Corrections must withhold moneys owed from funds earned by and kept for inmates; and persons who default without good cause lose the privilege of driving in this State until full payment is made.

Only one of the last three measures is routinely used, namely, that the Department of Corrections withholds restitution funds earned and kept by inmates. The likely reason is that the other measures require vigilance and the filing of papers by the sentencing county’s probation department. Doing so would jam up criminal calendars and probation officers’ calendars when, at the end of the day, it will usually be like trying to get blood from a stone. On the other hand, it is easy to divert funds from inmate commissary accounts.